Florida Colleges and Universities

Are you a student or the parent of student at a Florida school, college, or university facing a school-related issue or concern?  Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm can help. The world of academia is unique, and the Lento Law Firm has unparalleled national experience bringing its problem-solving approach and fighting spirit to address school-related injustice.  Attorney Lento and his Firm have helped countless students and families in Florida and across the United States at the school level and in court.  Please click on the following links for more information.  Please also see our expanded list of school practice areas.

Joseph D. Lento has helped countless students and others in academia in Florida protect their academic and professional future, and he can do the same for you. Contact him today at 888-535-3686.

An Overview of Florida Student Discipline and Student Rights

Florida has a robust system of higher education with twelve public universities, 28 community colleges, and 32 private colleges. Altogether, these institutions of higher learning serve 1.3 million students in Florida. If a college accuses you of misconduct, penetrating these educational systems and their administrations can seem overwhelming and scary. Having an experienced student misconduct attorney-advisor by your side can take much of the mystery out of the public and private college disciplinary systems, ensuring you know your rights. Don't let a Florida college or university administration harm your ability to finish your education. Give the Lento Law Firm a call today.

Misconduct Allegations in Florida

Every school in Florida will handle misconduct allegations differently. While Florida's state colleges may have similar conduct rules across their campuses and private schools may have more individual misconduct management policies, all must follow Florida's laws mandating due process and reporting. There are, however, differences from school to school.

State University System of Florida

Florida has 12 public universities educating more than 341,000 students. Together they make up the State University System of Florida. The system is headquartered in Tallahassee and headed up by a chancellor and the Florida Board of Governors.

Public Universities in Florida

Some of the best-known universities include Florida State, Florida International University, and the University of Florida, but the state colleges include:

Private Schools in Florida

Private schools include:

There are of course many other not-for profit and for-profit private academic institutions in Florida. Florida's private colleges may receive more diverse forms of funding and offer more specialized degrees, but still operate under at least some form of oversight from the Florida Department of Education. In particular, Chapter 1002 of the 2020 Florida Statues offers definitions of private schools and outlines student and parental rights in K-20 (or k-college) education.

Grounds for Discipline

Specific grounds for discipline may vary slightly at each Florida college and university, but typically they include the following acts outlined in Florida State’s Code of Student Conduct:

  • Sex discrimination and sexual misconduct: This conduct includes sex or gender-based harassment or discrimination, non-consensual sexual conduct, sexual harassment, non-consensual sexual intercourse, relationship abuse, stalking, sexual exploitation, retaliation, and complicity in these behaviors.
  • Endangerment,
  • Bullying or harassment,
  • Invasion of privacy,
  • Hazing,
  • Possessing weapons or dangerous substances on campus,
  • On-campus possession of unauthorized knives,
  • Unauthorized possession of fireworks or sparklers,
  • Off-campus or unlawful possession of firearms or dangerous
  • weapons in violation of state or federal law,
  • Fire and safety violations,
  • Unlawful possession or use of alcohol, illegal drugs, or controlled substances,
  • Disruption and obstruction,
  • Falsification and misrepresentation,
  • Theft, destruction, or misappropriation of property,
  • Unauthorized access or misuse of computers, networks, or online data,
  • Gambling, and
  • Other behavior such as violations of federal or state law.

In Florida, the guidelines set by the Board of Governors state that the schools may impose disciplinary measures for conduct that happens both on and off-campus, regardless of whether criminal charges result.

Disciplinary Procedures

The Florida Board of Governors maintains minimum standards and procedures for disciplinary conduct in all Florida public colleges and universities. The minimum standards include:

  • Students should receive written notice of charges with sufficient detail and time to prepare.
  • Students are entitled to disciplinary processes within each school's established timelines.
  • Students are entitled to a disciplinary committee or panel. The student can waive the right in writing if the school provides a form that explains the effect of waiving the right.
  • A student may have an advisor present, but the advisor may not speak for or present the case for the student or otherwise participate directly in the disciplinary proceeding.
  • The student and adviser have the right to inspect the school's evidence at least three days before the hearing. The school has the right to inspect evidence the student intends to present as well.
  • The student may present information at the hearing that is relevant to the hearing.
  • The student may present evidence and witnesses at the hearing, but the person or body conducting the hearing should conduct the questioning. Each university must have a procedure for this questioning.
  • The student can't be forced to provide incriminating evidence. However, the school isn't obliged to delay a hearing pending the outcome of criminal proceedings. The rights and rules of evidence or procedure in a civil or criminal proceeding do not apply in a student disciplinary proceeding.
  • The responsible or not responsible decision from the hearing must be decided solely on the evidence presented in the hearing.
  • A student found responsible for a violation should have a punishment commensurate with the violation, considering any aggravating circumstances and the student's conduct record.
  • If the result of the hearing is a decision to recommend official action to a school official, the school's code of conduct must specify the actions a university official may take.
  • Each school's code must describe the internal appeals process, with at least one level of appeal. No one who participated in the original hearing may decide the appeal.
  • A student remains eligible to attend classes pending the hearing's outcome and pending an appeal unless:
  • The safety of the community is in danger or
  • The hearing recommended a suspension or expulsion.

In disciplinary proceedings, the standard of review is the “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning the hearing panel finds it is more likely than not that the misconduct occurred.

Possible Sanctions

The sanctions possible for violating the student conduct code, including Title IX violations, vary from school to school but can include:

  • Reprimand,
  • Housing probation,
  • Termination or reassignment of housing,
  • Disciplinary probation,
  • Suspension,
  • Expulsion,
  • Degree withdrawal or revocation,
  • Service hours,
  • Education plans,
  • Restitution,
  • No contact directive,
  • Loss of privileges,
  • Parental notification,
  • Behavioral plan, and
  • Health and safety actions.

Appeals

The appeals process varies from university to university. However, each school must provide an appeals process with at least one level of internal appeals. At the University of Florida, the appeals process depends on the proceeding a student is appealing. Their policies state that no person who participated in the initial hearing process can hear the appeal, which is consistent with the Board of Governors' policy document.

Appeals of Administrative Review

Administrative appeals are possible if “the sanction(s) imposed were not appropriate for the violation, taking into account both prior misconduct and mitigating circumstances.” Appeals of decisions originally made by Housing and Residence Education go to the Director of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution or its designee. Appeals of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution staff decisions go to the Dean of Students or their designee. Appeals of decisions of the Dean of Students go to the Vice President of Student Affairs or their designee.

Hearing Appeals

Hearing appeals can be made if:

  1. “The Student's or Student Organization's rights were violated in the Hearing process in a manner which materially affected the outcome of the case.”
  2. “New relevant material or information has been provided that could be sufficient to alter a decision, and was unknown by the person making the appeal at the time of the Hearing.”
  3. “The Sanction(s) imposed were not appropriate for the violation, taking into account both prior misconduct and mitigating circumstances.”

The appellate authority depends on the type of hearing or the reason for the appeal:

  1. “Appeals of decisions that did not result in Separation, or did not originate from a Title IX based allegation, will be reviewed by the Vice President of Student Affairs or designee.”
  2. “New relevant material or information has been provided that could be sufficient to alter a decision, and was unknown by the person making the appeal at the time of the Hearing.”
  3. “Appeals of decisions that resulted in Separation, or originated from a Hearing of a Title IX based allegation, will be reviewed by an appeal panel designated by the Vice President of Student Affairs. Appeal panel members will be selected and trained annually. Each panel will be comprised as follows:
    • One (1) Student
    • Two (2) Faculty or staff members.”

While each school's appeals process may vary, after the appeals process, the decision of the president or the president's designee is final. If the final appellate decision results in a suspension or expulsion, the school must include a notice to the student of the their right to appeal.

The Florida College System

The Florida College System, formerly known as the Florida Community College System, comprises 28 community colleges and four-year colleges. These schools educate more than 800,000 Florida students each year.A Board of Trustees governs each college. Each college is a legally separate, independent organization.

Under Florida Statute Section 1004.65, the mission of the Florida College System is to be responsive to community needs for academic and career degree education in Florida:

This mission and responsibility includes being responsible for:

  • Providing lower level undergraduate instruction and awarding associate degrees.
  • Preparing students directly for careers requiring less than baccalaureate degrees. This may include preparing for job entry, supplementing of skills and knowledge, and responding to needs in new areas of technology. Career education in a Florida College System institution shall consist of career certificates, credit courses leading to associate in science degrees and associate in applied science degrees, and other programs in fields requiring substantial academic work, background, or qualifications. A Florida College System institution may offer career education programs in fields having lesser academic or technical requirements.
  • Providing student development services, including assessment, student tracking, support for disabled students, advisement, counseling, financial aid, career development, and remedial and tutorial services, to ensure student success.
  • Promoting economic development for the state within each Florida College System institution district through the provision of special programs, including, but not limited to, the:
  • Enterprise Florida-related programs.
  • Technology transfer centers.
  • Economic development centers.
  • Workforce literacy programs.
  • Providing dual enrollment instruction.
  • Providing upper level instruction and awarding baccalaureate degrees as specifically authorized by law.

The legislature changed the name from the Florida Community College System to the Florida College System to reflect that many colleges now offer four-year degrees. While every school is independent, they must follow federal and state law and policy and regulations set by the Board of Governors of the State University System of Florida. As a result, public community colleges, colleges, and universities in Florida all have very similar student discipline systems.

Public Colleges and Community Colleges in Florida

The schools making up the Florida College System include:

Florida College System Disciplinary Procedures

The Florida Code expressly states that students of the Florida College System are subject to all applicable federal, state, and local laws, but also to the rules and regulations of Florida's State Board of Education, the Board of Governors concerning the State University System, and each local institution's Board of Trustees.

  1. Each student in a Florida College System institution or state university is subject to federal and state law, respective county and municipal ordinances, and all rules and regulations of the State Board of Education, the Board of Governors regarding the State University System, or the board of trustees of the institution.
  2. Violation of these published laws, ordinances, or rules and regulations may subject the violator to appropriate action by the institution's authorities.
  3. Each president of a Florida College System institution or state university may, after notice to the student of the charges and after a hearing thereon, expel, suspend, or otherwise discipline any student who is found to have violated any law, ordinance, or rule or regulation of the State Board of Education, the Board of Governors regarding the State University System, or the board of trustees of the institution. A student may be entitled to waiver of expulsion:
    • If the student provides substantial assistance in the identification, arrest, or conviction of any of his or her accomplices, accessories, coconspirators, or principals or of any other person engaged in violations of chapter 893 within a state university or Florida College System institution;
    • If the student voluntarily discloses his or her violations of chapter 893 prior to his or her arrest; or
    • If the student commits himself or herself, or is referred by the court in lieu of sentence, to a state-licensed drug abuse program and successfully completes the program.

Fl. Stat. § 1006.62 (2011).

While the code holds Florida College System students to the same rules and regulations as those in the State University System, the state legislature does strive to make the Florida College System more responsive to local needs. Under Section 1004.65(3) of the Florida Code:

Florida College System institutions are locally based and governed entities with statutory and funding ties to state government. As such, the mission for Florida College System institutions reflects a commitment to be responsive to local educational needs and challenges. In achieving this mission, Florida College System institutions strive to maintain sufficient local authority and flexibility while preserving appropriate legal accountability to the state.

Compliance with Federal and State Law

While the Board of Governors delineates the minimum required disciplinary procedures, the Florida legislature also sets rules specifically regarding violations of federal or state law for any student in a Florida public college or university. Under Florida law, a school may punish, suspend, or expel as necessary for violating these laws. “Violation of these published laws, ordinances, or rules and regulations may subject the violator to appropriate action by the institution's authorities.” Fl. Stat. § 1006.62(2) (2011).

Florida Public and Private College and University Title IX Procedures

The Florida Board of Governors has a separate set of disciplinary procedures for conduct that violates Title IX in any public college or university in Florida. Misconduct allegations against college students related to sexual harassment fall under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”), 20 U.S.C. §1681 et seq. Title IX allegations and procedures typically follow clearer and more stringent due process rules both because these allegations are quite serious and because federal regulations provide more direction for colleges and universities. Issues surrounding sexual misconduct discipline matters are also highly litigated. As a result, there is a broad range of case law construing both the laws surrounding Title IX and its regulations.

What is Title IX?

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”), 20 U.S.C. §1681 et seq., is a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools accepting federal funding. Title IX applies to public kindergarten through 12th-grade schools, as well as state colleges and universities. As Title IX applies to any school that receives federal funding, many private universities operate under its guidances as well, including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Everglades University. Title IX states:

"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

All colleges and universities accepting federal funds in Florida must protect against discrimination in athletics, admissions, employment, and financial aid. Sexual assault and harassment are also Title IV violations. If a school knows about an assault that happened on campus or at an off-campus school event, it must investigate and remediate the matter even if the student involved doesn't make a complaint. A school “may address sexual harassment affecting its students or employees that falls outside Title IX's jurisdiction in any manner the school chooses” under Title IX regulations. In some cases, Title IX requires colleges to perform a broad investigative role for serious allegations of criminal conduct. Often schools and universities are not equipped to handle these investigations and hearings in a manner that protects the due process rights of the accused student.

Title IX Regulations

The Title IX statute and the Department of Education's Title IX regulations describe the minimum due process schools must allow accused students in sexual harassment and assault matters. These minimum due process procedures include:

  • An unbiased and trained tribunal,
  • Giving written notice of the allegations containing sufficient detail, including the names of the other parties, the alleged conduct, the sections of the student conduct code allegedly violated, and the
  • date and time of the incident,
  • Receiving notice with adequate time to prepare before a hearing,
  • Allowing the accused to introduce evidence and witnesses,
  • Allowing the accused to cross-examine witnesses, including the complainant or respondent,
  • Giving the parties right to consult an attorney or advisor,
  • Applying the correct legal standard of proof,
  • Disclosing all of the evidence against the respondent,
  • Giving the accused the right to inspect and review the evidence,
  • Giving the accused the right to discuss the allegations and to contact potential witnesses,
  • Allowing an advisor to be present to question or cross-examine witnesses, including the respondent or complainant,
  • Giving the hearing procedures allowed to one party to both parties. Bilateral procedures should include procedures such as cross-examination, the right to submit questions to be asked of witnesses, and the right to have an attorney or advisor,
  • Providing both parties written findings of fact and conclusions of law, and a rationale for the results and the suggested sanctions or remedies.
  • The right to receive a written investigative report at least ten days before any hearing, and

Schools may use informal hearings alternative resolutions as long as both parties consent in writing. But Title IX regulations don't require informal procedures.

Schools may use either the “preponderance of the evidence” or the “clear and convincing evidence” standards of proof under Title IX:

  • “Preponderance of the Evidence”: This standard means that it's more likely than not that the accused committed the infraction.
  • “Clear and Convincing Evidence”: This standard is more stringent than the preponderance of the evidence standard but less stringent than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Colleges must use the same standard for all students and employees, including faculty. 34 C.F.R. §106.45(b)(1)(vii); §106.45(b)(7)(i). All Florida colleges and universities use the lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard in Title IX cases.

Title IX Hearing Procedures

The Board of Governors for the Florida University System lays out specific minimum Title IX procedures for the entire university, college, and community college system. These procedures cover Title IX allegations, hearings, and sanctions. See Bd. Gov. Policies § 6.0105(8).

Title IX hearings tend to be more formal than most student disciplinary hearings. But they don't include formal rules of evidence like those used in a courtroom setting. Each party can have an adviser present and can ask questions and cross-examine the witnesses. However, they submit questions to a hearing officer, who then asks the questions. Florida Board of Governors procedures also allow witnesses to provide information to avoid direct contact with the complainant, the student defendant, or the other participants.

If the panel finds the student responsible, they can consider a victim impact statement in determining the recommended sanction. The parties can appeal the decision via their school's appellate procedures within ten working days. The specifics of the appeals process vary from school to school but must include at least one internal appeals layer.

Because Florida's state-wide laws and regulations don't delineate more due process than those already required by Title IX, school procedures for Title IX disciplinary matters must comply with the minimum standards set by Title IX laws and regulations.

How Do Due Process Rights Apply to Florida Schools?

In Title IX matters, we talk about due process a great deal. But students still have due process rights applicable in virtually all student disciplinary matters. However, the amount of due process to which you might be entitled can vary from case to case. A conduct allegation that could end in suspension or expulsion from your college should entitle you to more due process than a minor matter that might just get you a written reprimand. But every school will vary in its judgment about how much due process a student should have and when they should have it.

Due Process Origins

Whenever the government takes something from you, you're typically entitled to due process. In student disciplinary matters, due process rights come from the idea that a school is taking something important from you if it restricts your education, including a right or a property interest. You have procedural and substantive due process rights, but these come up in both differing and overlapping ways.

Procedural due process involves the procedures a school uses when it take a right away from you. Substantive due process prevents the government, including Florida public colleges, from interfering with your basic or constitutional rights – your substantive rights. If your school restricts your free speech, discriminates against you based on your membership in a protected class like race, religion, or gender, or takes away an educational property right, these concerns all raise due process issues. While Florida colleges often argue that school discipline is only an educational matter, the law is clear. You have due process protections at college whenever a property interest, a right, or a liberty interest is at stake.

Property Interests

While it seems odd to think of your education as “property,” your education is a property interest that you have. When you take classes towards a degree, that progress or the degree you earned has significant value. While losing these credits isn't as serious as time in jail, it still has a lasting impact on your life and your financial future.

If a Florida public college decides to suspend or expel a student, they can't simply arbitrarily take away that student's property interest in their education. The student is entitled to due process. But the level of due process due to a student depends on the seriousness of the possible punishment. The more serious the possible punishment, the more due process the school must give the student.

Liberty Interests

A school disciplinary proceeding can also implicate a liberty interest if it affects a student's “good name, reputation, honor, or integrity is at stake because of what the government is doing to him….” Wisconsin v. Constantineau 400 U.S. 433, 437 (Sup. Ct. 1971). According to the U.S. Supreme Court, if a disciplinary proceeding threatens a student's education and harms their reputation, that's enough to involve both a property and a liberty interest and require due process.

Free speech is another liberty interest all students have. Many state constitutions, including Florida's, give their citizens an affirmative free speech right. Often these constitutional provisions protect free speech on state campuses, but Florida also affirmatively protects speech on public campuses through legislation. The Department of Education also published new proposed regulations addressing free speech in January of 2020.

Florida's Campus Free Speech Act prohibits schools from restricting speech to “free speech zones” on campus and permits spontaneous freedom of expression as long as it is lawful and doesn't disrupt scheduled or reserved campus activities happening at the same time. Fl. Stat. § 1004.097 (2019). The statute does limit these protections to public colleges and universities.

"(3) RIGHT TO FREE-SPEECH ACTIVITIES.—

(a) Expressive activities protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Art. I of the State Constitution include, but are not limited to, any lawful oral or written communication of ideas, including all forms of peaceful assembly, protests, and speeches; distributing literature; carrying signs; circulating petitions; and the recording and publication, including the Internet publication, of video or audio recorded in outdoor areas of campus. Expressive activities protected by this section do not include commercial speech.

(b) A person who wishes to engage in an expressive activity in outdoor areas of campus may do so freely, spontaneously, and contemporaneously as long as the person's conduct is lawful and does not materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of the public institution of higher education or infringe upon the rights of other individuals or organizations to engage in expressive activities.

(c) Outdoor areas of campus are considered traditional public forums for individuals, organizations, and guest speakers. A public institution of higher education may create and enforce restrictions that are reasonable and content-neutral on time, place, and manner of expression and that are narrowly tailored to a significant institutional interest. Restrictions must be clear and published and must provide for ample alternative means of expression.

(d) A public institution of higher education may not designate any area of campus as a free-speech zone or otherwise create policies restricting expressive activities to a particular outdoor area of campus, except as provided in paragraph (c).

(e) Students, faculty, or staff of a public institution of higher education may not materially disrupt previously scheduled or reserved activities on campus occurring at the same time." Id. at § 1004.097(3).

Florida's campus free speech law also creates a cause of action for anyone whose rights under this law are violated at a public college campus.

"A person whose expressive rights are violated by an action prohibited under this section may bring an action against a public institution of higher education in a court of competent jurisdiction to obtain declaratory and injunctive relief, reasonable court costs, and attorney fees." Id. at § 1004.097(4).

Florida does not have any specific free speech protections on private school campuses, except to the extent that Florida's constitutional free speech protections apply.

Steps to Take Prior to Pursuing Litigation Against Your School

A decision like suing your school is not one you can take lightly. After this type of litigation, your relationship with your Florida public or private school will likely be at an end—forever. As this can be a dramatic step, it's a good idea to consider taking all other possible actions before filing a suit. Some of these steps can seem redundant, but they can be necessary in order to provide the proper basis for a strategic, aggressive court case.

These steps include:

  • Going through your Florida school's grievance process
  • Filing an appeal with your school, with the help of your attorney-advisor
  • Filing an official complaint with the Florida Department of Education
  • Working with your Florida student defense attorney-advisor to ensure that you have the basis for a successful court case.

Court Litigation Against Florida Colleges

If you need to take your Florida college or university to court related to the results of a disciplinary matter, you may make arguments under Title IX, breach of contract, violation of your due process rights, or by challenging a state action.

Title IX Court Litigation

You may have a successful claim against a Florida college or university based on Title IX if:

  • You can show actual evidence of gender bias in the decision against you, and you can prove the outcome was wrong, or
  • You can provide statements from the school that demonstrate gender bias.

You may also recover attorney's fees if your claim is successful.

Breach of Contract Claims

You may also bring a breach of contract claim against your Florida school, arguing that the college or university breached a contract with you. You can establish the “contract” through your student handbook, the school code of conduct, and other written documents dictating disciplinary procedures and school responsibilities.

Due Process Violations

As we noted earlier, if your Florida public college takes a liberty or property interest from you related to your education, you are entitled to due process. Due process rights vary based on the type of claim, but generally, you're entitled to notice of the charges that is specific enough to defend against them. Your college should also give you the chance to plead your case before a neutral judge.

Administrative Mandamus

Florida state schools are considered government agents. In Florida and many other states, a writ of administrative mandamus allows you to challenge some decisions of the state. The writ of mandamus is a request to a Florida court to reverse a decision of a Florida administrative agency not supported by the evidence. Courts can look at whether the state acted beyond its jurisdiction, there was a fair trial, and there was an abuse of discretion in the matter.

Hire an Experienced Student Discipline Attorney-Advisor

If you're facing a student disciplinary case, academic challenges, or other school-related issue or concern in Florida, you need an experienced and skilled advisor with advanced negotiation skills and a team ready to fight when needed. Attorney Joseph D. Lento has unparalleled experience as an attorney-advisor in student discipline and other matters at more than a thousand colleges and universities across the country, including countless schools in Florida. Attorney Lento and his team have won countless battles on behalf of students facing school-related issues and concerns in Florida and also nationwide. He and his team can help you. Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888.535.3686 or reach out to us online

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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